Last night many of my neighbours switched off their power for Earth Hour. It wasn’t an unusual event.

That’s because there have been at least four major power cuts in my North Shore suburb since I moved there at the end of 2004.

In the last five years, the power would have been off for roughly one day in every year. I’ve also seen two disruptive power cuts while working in Auckland’s central business district. In at least one of those cases, the city, and my newspaper, lost an entire day’s production.

Earlier this year the upmarket suburbs of Newmarket and Parnell suffered two more power cuts. The New Zealand Herald covered the story on February 19 in Power restored to Auckland suburbs saying shop keepers’ confidence in Vector (the local power company) was at an all time low.

As we shall see, that is saying something.

Not good enough

To be frank, it just isn’t good enough. Admittedly things in Auckland aren’t as bad as, say, Manila or Jakarta, but for a first world country like New Zealand, frequent power cuts are not a good look.

Ten years ago when US President Bill Clinton visited Auckland for the APEC meeting he brought a portable electricity generator. It parked outside his chic city centre hotel on the back of a large, dark, unmarked truck that some locals dubbed the ‘stealth generator’.

In any other major western city, Clinton’s precaution might have seemed a little over the top. It would have insulted his hosts.

But Auckland is different. A year and a half before the leader of the free world flew into New Zealand’s largest city, the locals were checking their shopping change by candlelight when the Auckland’s lights went out and stayed out for almost six weeks.

Wikipedia entry on 1998 Auckland power crisis.

Even now, more than ten years after that blackout, many Auckland residents fear their city’s power supply is still not secure. With good reason because at 8:30 on 12th June 2006 the power went off again. Half of Auckland including the entire CBD was without power for over four hours. Some parts of the city suffered a longer outage.

Wikipedia entry on 2006 Auckland power cut

The problems are partly a result of over zealous free market reforms. The greed and arrogance of power company managers are also a reason.

There’s an obvious parallel here with the global financial crisis.

And then there are New Zealand’s ridiculous planning laws. These mean generators have built no new power stations to meet booming demand. Thankfully this looks set to change with the new Kaipara gas-fired power station finally getting the green light. But that’s only the start. We need more.

The robust networks needed to move power from where it is generated into the city are still often held up by endless bureaucracy and over the top planning processes.

At the time of earlier crises, Auckland’s power supply depended on four cables: two gas-filled cables and two oil-filled cables. On 22 January 1998, one of the gas-filled cables failed. Power wasn’t disrupted as the remaining three cables took up the load.

On 9 February, the second gas-filled cable was cut. The power went off and Mercury Energy Limited, which operated the cables, asked its customer to voluntarily cut power consumption by 10 percent.

On 19 February, the emergency started in earnest when a fault in one of the oil-filled cables caused both remaining cables to shut down, cutting off all power to the city.

Mercury repaired one of the cables quickly, but it could only supply a reduced load. Power rationing was introduced to the city centre, which saw rolling two-hour power cuts.

At 5.30pm on Friday 20 February, the last cable failed. Mercury issued a statement that it “could no longer supply the Central Business District with electricity”. A limited standby cable managed to provide power to the district’s two hospitals and other emergency services.

For more than five weeks the nation’s largest city was plunged into chaos. Many businesses had little choice but to close down temporarily. Others relocated staff to other New Zealand cities or even flew them to Australia.

50,000 workers affected

At least 50,000 workers and 8,500 businesses were affected. Estimate costs were around $NZ400 million, though that figure does not include tourism, international trade and financial services. In a small nation like New Zealand, the shut-down was serious enough to tip an already fragile economy into recession.

Who knows how much investment hasn’t happened because of the flaky infrastructure?

At the time of the blackout, Jim Macaulay, chairman of Mercury Energy, the company that supplied Auckland’s electricity, told the media it was “the most incredible, freakish bad luck you could ever imagine.” However, the government inquiry into the blackout found that there were many warnings that such an event could occur.

Well, it could happen again. Earth Hour should have acted as a reminder to people living in a city where power and light can’t entirely be taken for granted.

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